Jackie Robinson, the film “42” and the Obama years

May 23, 2013

The Obama years continue to push American culture in unexpected ways.  The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is “42”, a film about the great African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, who became the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.

American racists may be unhappy, but Obama’s post-racial America is a whole lot closer now than it was five years ago when he was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  Too many things have happened in American culture for the clock ever to go back to where it once was.  Using US Census data, the Pew Research Center concluded in December 2012 that in the last Presidential election, for the first time in US history, blacks appeared to vote at a higher percentage rate than whites.  And further, this shift has been operating for the last four Presidential elections – in other words, back to the year 2000.  And here’s the thing:  this new pattern of voting has been happening in spite of well-funded and vigorous attempts by the Republican Party and conservative groups to disenfranchise black voters.

Well, back to Jackie Robinson ….

Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  He played for ten seasons, including six World Series and six All-Star games.  With a lifetime batting average of .311, he was the National League “Rookie of the Year” in 1947 and that league’s “Most Valuable Player” in 1949.  In 1997, his baseball number – 42 – was officially “retired”, so no-one else would use it in any team.  Thus that number still holds a strong resonance for baseball fans, past and – presumably – future.

“42” had a great promotional start, premiering in Los Angeles on April 10, 2013, before its cinema release on April 12.  Five days later – April 15, 2013 – Major League Baseball celebrated its yearly “Jackie Robinson Day”, a day when all players wear uniform number 42 – in honour of the memory of Robinson.  (Neat timing, huh?)

“42” stars the relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ General Manager.  It’s written and directed by Brian Helgeland, a superior screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential”, “Mystic River”, “Robin Hood”, “Green Zone”, “Taking of Pelham 1,2,3”) who may yet become an accomplished director.

Robinson played himself in the only other big-screen version of his life, the 1950 film called “The Jackie Robinson Story”.  Other screen portrayals have all been on television, including John Lafayette playing Robinson in “A Home Run for Love” (1978), Andre Braugher in “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” (1990) and Blair Underwood in “Soul of the Game” (1996).  In addition, a 1981 Broadway musical called “The First” (book by critic Joel Siegel) starred David Alan Grier.  With “42”, Robinson has made it back to the big screen.  It’s no coincidence that First Lady Michelle Obama hosted Robinson’s widow Rachel and the cast of “42” at the White House on April 4, 2013.

“42” also holds a “tie” record for one of the shortest film titles on record.  I recall reading some years ago that the average length of the title of an Oscar-winning film was about 1.4 words.  Think “Castaway”, “Braveheart”, “Titanic”, “Amadeus”, “Atonement”, “Babe”, “Babel”, “Capote”, “Casablanca”, “Chicago”, “Chinatown”, “Crash” ….  Need I go on?  Two letters, however, is hard to beat.  Possible, but not by much.

“42” was originally scheduled for a May release in Australia, but now appears to be “tbc”, despite the presence of film great Harrison Ford.  American baseball movies, no matter how good they are, don’t tend to do well in this country, as we lack that sporting tradition, with the game genuinely foreign to most film-goers here.

View the film’s trailer here:

Missed Pitch But Who Knew

August 18, 2012

At least it’s not just me.  Caught up in the hype surrounding the release last year of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (and loving the themes – college and baseball, which I played for years), I bought it in hardcover while in the USA, not waiting for the Australian paperback release a couple of months later.

I got up to page 146 (end of chapter 18); the last words I read were “She nestled into the line of his body, smelled the sweet sweaty odor of his neck, and fell asleep.”  I put it down on my bedside table in February of this year, and have not opened it since (except, just now, to check the page and the last words I had read).

Why was that?  The book is pleasant, but just not very compelling.  No strong reason to keep reading.  Once upon a time, when I was much younger and had more time and more patience … I would have persisted and finished the book.  No longer.  And my view is not alone.  In the May 2012 edition of The Atlantic, B.B Myers (“A Swing and a Miss:  Why the latest hyped-up word of staggering genius fizzles”) analyses the hype, the success and the failure, concluding that the book is “as light and insubstantial as a 512 page book can be … reading the novel through is like submitting to a long and almost imperceptibly light tickling.”  Harbach squanders “flawless if not especially distinctive prose.”

But why such success, despite such lack of substance?  Myers charts this up to a well-timed “puff piece” in Vanity Fair by Keith Gessen, a close friend of Harbach’s, and testimonials from a number of celebrities, including Jonathan Franzen.

Myers also indicts the “literary establishment’s corruption of standards”:  Once upon a time, “people used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.”

Interested in following this?  Rarely do book reviews get reviewed, but Myers’ was.  Here’s a piece by Michael Miner (“The Art of Blathering”), who points out that Reeves Weideman gave The Art of Fielding a very positive review in the September 26th 2011 edition of … (wait for it) … The Atlantic.  By the way, Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review in The New York Times:  “not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside ‘The Natural’ by Bernard Malamud and ‘The Southpaw’ by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.”

Confused?  You might well be.  And I’m still unlikely ever to get past page 146.  There are some truly great American baseball novels.  Sadly, this is not one of them.


Baseball postscript:  I played Little League baseball for three years when I was young (and, unbelievably, I still have my original baseball glove, which has travelled with me since and still works).  The first year I played right field (the position the weakest players are located), and my team – the Mackinney Oilers – went 9-9, coming in fifth out of nine.  The second year I played second base (the weakest infield spot), batted .333 (although not a power hitter), and the team went 9-9 again. My final year, I played shortstop, fielded strongly, but only batted .250 with nevertheless a high on-base percentage due to drawing a large number of “walks” (base on balls) – an ignominious way to get on base, but it happened.  But the team was bad, went 0-18.  We almost won one game, however it was called off on account of rain, and when we replayed it, we lost.  My worst moment:  I came in as a relief pitcher (my only time) in a game we were losing badly, and I promptly walked three batters and then faced Ricky Earle, who was in my year at school (and was later recruited, as I remember, by the New York Yankees, although I do not recall him ever making it to the majors).  Ricky watched me carefully.  I threw the first pitch high and outside but it did not make any difference to him:  he reached over the plate and slammed it over the left field fence for a grand slam home run.  The coach took me off the mound then, and to this day my competitive pitching record is an infinite ERA (earned run average):  three walks, one home run and four runs given up with no outs.  Work that one out.

The Kevin Costner Effect: They keep on coming

December 18, 2011

According to The New York Times (“New Dreams for Field”, 30 October 2011, Sports p. 1), the fans are still coming to the baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character built in the 1989 film Field of Dreams (news flash: Field of Dreams  is screening on free-to-air Australian TV on digital channel One -“1”- on Thursday 22nd December at 8.30pm). Writer Ken Belson reports that the farm where the field was built (Dyersville, Iowa), whose owners have maintained the baseball field, has now been sold to new owners who are planning on maintaining it. In the first year after the film was released, about 7,000 people showed up to see the field; the following year that number doubled and “some brought their fathers’ old gloves and left them in the cornfield.  Others exchanged wedding vows or scattered ashes of deceased relatives.”

The powerful reaction to this place reflects three enduring, important and enduring themes in American life:

– the longing for a “historical past” which was simpler and filled with traditional values;

– the significance of farms and rural America in the consciousness of Americans as a place where the “real” America lies, irrespective of the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans actually live on farms:  according to the US Dept of Agriculture, the figure is less than two percent; and according to the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, “the desertion of the small family farm constitutes the largest population movement in American history” and “the family farm is one of the last homes of old school American ethnicity and beliefs”; and

– the paramount and indeed spiritual importance of place, physical space – even in this digital, hyper-connected and networked world.

The lasting impact of this film, with its tag line “If you build it, they will come” also has helped to establish (or at least reinforce) what I call a significant fallacy in construction:  that somehow if we just build a place/space/building you name it, people will show.  Yes, they will come, but only rarely.  To Kevin Costner’s character’s field – and indeed even to its real-life location some twenty-two years later.

But not necessarily to everything.  In my recent (November 2011) presentation to the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney (click here for details of this paper, including a link to the full downloadable paper), I call this belief of building and the coming “The Kevin Costner Effect”.  In the paper, I caution that this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the development of broadband networks and infrastructure like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN).  The reason for this caution is that some twenty percent of the population in countries like Australia, the USA and the UK will not automatically “arrive” on broadband – emphasising the necessity to promote and systematically plan for digital inclusion.

Strat-O-Matic Baseball lives on

February 11, 2011

A wonderful article has just been published by sportswriter Joe Lemire (on SI.com) about Strat-O-Matic Baseball, a game which I religiously played with four friends starting in 1964.  Some 47 years later, I am still a fan of the Cincinnati Reds – all because I was allocated their team in our first season of Strat-O-Matic.  We played with the 1963 season and I had two rather mediocre teams:  the Reds and the Minnesota Twins.  The Reds had come in 5th that year (86 wins. 76 losses), Pete Rose’s rookie year (for which he won rookie of the year).  Here was the standard starting line-up:

C Johnny Edwards (148) (.259)

1B Gordy Coleman (107) (.247)

2B Pete Rose (157) (.273)

3B Gene Freese (62) (.244)

SS Leo Cardenas (157) (.235)

LF Frank Robinson (116) (.259)

CF Vada Pinson (147) (.313)

RF Tommy Harper (94)C (.260)

Lemire captures beautifully the astonishing power, intelligence, simplicity and impact of Strat-O-Matic Baseball.  I am amazed and astonished that the company – with only nine staff – is still going strong in this digital age, a testament to the realism which it engenders in its games.